Glenn Swan, studio manager of Sony Music Studios
On an afternoon early this summer, it became official: Sony Music Studios (SMS), one of New York City's largest audio (and video) production facilities was closing. Although rumors had been circulating for months about the demise of the five-floor facility on West 54th Street, the news still came as an extremely unpleasant jolt to the recording industry, as well as the studios' 127 employees.
“Thursday, June 7, 6:30 p.m. — I'll never forget it,” says Glenn Swan, SMS' studio manager. “The reaction was everything you would expect — like General Motors announcing a plant closing. This is a first-class institution, and when they announced it everyone was very heartbroken. There were a lot of tears, a lot of discussions and a lot of great memories. I felt like it was a great family here, and that got broken up.”
Adding to the pain of the announcement was the fact that, although a rescue plan had been organized by SMS president Andy Kadison and a backing group of investors to purchase the complex and rename it Evolution, that plan was not allowed to come to fruition. “He was in negotiation to buy the building from Sony,” Swan says. “Andy made it clear he wasn't looking to lay anyone off or cut salaries, and he intended to put some money in to upgrade it. He had a great plan in place, but for whatever reason it fell through.”
A massive presence in the Northeast since the building was purchased by Sony in 1993, SMS was the home of a staggering 50-plus rooms (yes, there was a Studio Z) dedicated to audio recording, mixing, mastering and post, as well as video production and post. It was the site of Nirvana's famed MTV Unplugged recording, the center for PBS' Sessions at West 54th Street series, and a hub for scores of pop, jazz and classical artists; producers; and engineers creating for labels under the Sony umbrella and beyond.
After August 31, however, the building will have hosted its last session and be on its way to becoming condos or a hotel, following the sale of the ultra-precious real estate underneath to developers. Like the vaunted Hit Factory that went before it in 2005, SMS was the rare New York City facility that actually owned (rather than leased) its space. Combined with the revolving door atop parent company Sony Music and a marketplace with slipping profit margins, those factors put the writing on the wall.
“There were several top-level executive changes,” observes Brian McKenna, a former VP of audio operations and marketing at SMS, who departed the company in April after 14 years to found his own media firm, www.4mediamanagement.com. “This meant we had to repeatedly showcase the facility to validate its worth to them. Some executives embraced the studio; others did not.”
While bookings were reportedly relatively strong throughout SMS, the fact that the audio department was unionized via Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians tended to offset the studio's gains. “It was the last union facility in the industry,” McKenna says. “I fully respect the union and worked closely with them; however, that model, combined with the large amount of non-union staff, became challenging to uphold.”
As big as New York City is, whether or not all 127 SMS employees (comprising both audio and video specialists) will be able to continue on in their chosen fields remains to be seen. The mastering department was a consistent profit center, staffed with strong players such as Vic Anesini, James Cruz, the legendary Vlado Meller, Joseph M. Palmaccio and Mark Wilder; most of them should be able to find new rooms in the area. Others may be re-positioned within Sony, but for the remainder the future remains uncertain.
“I hope to stay with Sony because this is the best company I've worked for,” Swan states. “This job is the first time that I've been treated with respect for my qualifications. Sony gives you a tremendous amount of benefits, and they took care of a lot of people that they didn't have to take care of in this closing, so it was done with class.
“Can New York City absorb the rest of the people that Sony doesn't retain? These engineers are in a difficult position,” Swan continues. “They were working here all the time, and other studios have their own people moving up. I've been an employee in two major facilities and a producer in all of them, and the assistants here are the best I've ever seen — they would smoke a lot of engineers in a lot of other facilities.”
Although it would never appear in any accountant's analysis, a major loss that affected SMS deeply was the untimely death of one man in the giant complex: resident genius/chief engineer Dave Smith, who passed away unexpectedly in June 2006.
“From the time of Dave's passing, it didn't feel the same,” seconds McKenna. “He was my mentor and inspired the staff. That said, I think he'd be proud of what we're doing today.”
McKenna and his partners are looking to boost the still-formidable, albeit diffuse, Manhattan recording scene with their own advanced audio facility. “Our facility's model is tailored to today's and the future's market,” McKenna says. “We love the older studios, but ours will be incredibly efficient and allow us to offer competitive rates while providing five-star treatment in a pro audio environment.
“Despite the closing of SMS, the staff and I are very proud of the work and service we provided to create some of the top recordings in the industry.”
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